Lionel Messi wins record sixth Balon d’Or

– By James Clancy

Lionel Messi has won a record sixth Ballon d’Or crown at a ceremony in Paris.

The Barcelona star moved ahead of great rival Cristiano Ronaldo to take outright ownership of the record, seeing off Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk and Juventus’ Ronaldo.

The Argentinian struck 54 goals for club and country in the 2018-19 season.

The 32-year-old held off the challenge of Holland centre-back Van Dijk, whose performances helped Liverpool to the Champions League title.

Van Dijk, the winner of UEFA’s Men’s Player of the Year, could have been the first defender to lift the Ballon d’Or since Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, but he was left to settle for second place as Messi added another honour to the Best FIFA Men’s award he received in September.

And he fired a warning to his rivals that he only intends to keep on breaking records, and has no plans to start easing off now that he is in his early 30s.

“I’m going to enjoy this with my family,” he said. “Because those times when it’s possible to do it do not last long.

“Tomorrow we will have to focus again on other objectives.

“I am already focused on the future. This gives me great pride, it gives me a lot of strength to continue my work.”

Van Dijk still finished ahead of five-time winner Ronaldo, with his Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane fourth.

“It was an amazing year, but there’s a couple of players like that who are a bit unnatural,” said Van Dijk, of Messi and Ronaldo.

“So you need to respect greatness as well.

“I was close, but there was just someone a little bit better.

“I’m very proud of what I achieved last year with Liverpool and Holland, and hopefully we can do that again this year. But that will be tough with those guys around here still.”

Van Dijk admitted he had never expected to be in the running for the prestigious title.

“I never thought that I would be up for a Ballon d’Or until I was actually nominated,” said Van Dijk.

“It shows a lot about how my career has been. My career has been different from the winner here, I came late, but I never gave up on my dreams.

“I had to work hard every step of the way, so to be here makes me very proud. And I want to work hard and be here again next year.”

Juventus defender Matthijs De Ligt claimed the 2019 Kopa Trophy for the young player award.

FA Cup third round draw pits Liverpool against Everton

– By James Clancy

Liverpool will face Everton in the FA Cup third round, while holders Arsenal will travel to Nottingham Forest.

Premier League leaders Manchester City have a home tie against Burnley, Manchester United host Derby and Chelsea are away at Norwich.

Seventh-tier Hereford, the lowest-ranked side left, will face Leicester if they overcome Fleetwood at the second attempt.

Three non-league sides remain but all are involved in replays.

National League side AFC Fylde will head to Premier League Bournemouth if they see off Wigan in a replay. Woking, who also play in the fifth tier, know victory over Peterborough in their replay will earn them a trip to Championship side Aston Villa.

In the pick of the other ties, AFC Wimbledon will travel to Wembley to take on Tottenham, Middlesbrough face Sunderland and Brighton & Hove Albion will host Crystal Palace – the latter one of three all-Premier League contests.

The Merseyside derby gives Liverpool the chance to correct one of cup football’s more unusual statistics – that the Reds have never beaten Everton in an FA Cup tie at Anfield.

In fact, the last time the Toffees lost at that ground in either the FA Cup or League Cup was in 1892, when Anfield was their home stadium and they were beaten by Burnley.

Ties will take place on the weekend of 6-7 January 2018.

The third-round draw in full

Ipswich Town v Sheffield United

Watford v Bristol City

Birmingham City v Burton Albion

Liverpool v Everton

Brighton & Hove Albion v Crystal Palace

Aston Villa v Peterborough United

Bournemouth v Wigan

Coventry City v Stoke City

Newport County v Leeds United

Bolton Wanderers v Huddersfield Town

Yeovil Town v Bradford City

Nottingham Forest v Arsenal

Brentford v Notts County

Queens Park Rangers v MK Dons

Manchester United v Derby County

Exeter City v West Bromwich Albion

Doncaster Rovers v Rochdale

Tottenham Hotspur v AFC Wimbledon

Middlesbrough v Sunderland

Fleetwood v Leicester City

Blackburn Rovers v Hull City

Cardiff City v Mansfield Town

Manchester City v Burnley

Shrewsbury Town v West Ham United

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Swansea City

Stevenage v Reading

Newcastle United v Luton Town

Millwall v Barnsley

Fulham v Southampton

Wycombe Wanderers v Preston North End

Norwich City v Chelsea

Carlisle United v Sheffield Wednesday

 

 

 

 

Solskjaer reflects on Manchester United being six points above Premier League relegation zone

– By James Clancy

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says he is not thinking about the table despite sitting just six points clear of the relegation zone.

After more dropped points ninth-placed Manchester United are closer to the bottom three than they are to the Champions League places.

United are eight points adrift of the battle for a European finish but the Norwegian claims there are bigger things to worry about.

Solskjaer said: “I would have sat here talking about being fifth if we’d got the one extra goal. So the league table is not the biggest concern.

“It’s so tight. I have to make sure we get performances and results.

“As a club we don’t like to be in this position but that’s the reality. Wednesday we have a big game against Tottenham, Saturday against Manchester City, these boys are looking forward to every game.”

This is now United’s worst start to a season for more than 30 years.

And they have not won in three games since ex-United target Mauricio Pochettino was shown the door by Spurs.

Solskjaer added: “What I can say is we’ve had the lead in so many games and haven’t been able to win them, six or seven times and we should be better at turning them into wins.”

United have won only six of 22 matches since Solskjaer was given the job on a permanent basis back in the spring.

His team have 18 points from 14 games so far – and his predecessor Jose Mourinho was sacked a year ago having got 27 from 18.

Ironically the Special One’s resurgent Tottenham and then Manchester City are United’s next two opponents in the week ahead.

The United boss added: “I think there’s loads of evidence that they are closer to winning than losing, to tip in our favour we have to work on lots of different things.

“We’re a young team, I don’t want to use that as an excuse, we’re Manchester United and want to get a run and that’s what these boys need.

“We just have to make sure we do everything right now because it’s a quick turnaround.”

Solskjaer left all his starters behind when a young squad travelled to Kazakhstan last week and the plan did not work out.

United were lacklustre in the opening 45 minutes and were fortunate to go in on level terms thanks to a Tom Heaton own goal.

He admitted: “The boys stayed here so we should have come out of the traps quicker. The first half wasn’t good enough.”

Gareth Bale will *not* be allowed play golf during UEFA Euro 2020

 Bale angered Real Madrid fans with his 'Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order' flag

– By James Clancy

Ryan Giggs will stop Gareth Bale from playing golf during Euro 2020.

Wales’ talisman is a keen golfer but will be told the focus next summer is solely on Group A rivals Italy, Switzerland and Turkey.

Welsh FA chief executive Jonathan Ford said: “Ryan is clear to make sure that while in camp our focus should just be on the football.

“You can’t be in a situation where you have players risking their health and  fitness by playing golf. I appreciate some players look at it differently.

“You can’t train all day so there has to be some entertainment for the guys. But you have to be careful.”

Bale celebrated qualifying for Euro 2020 last month by posing and laughing in front of the controversial banner ‘WALES. GOLF. MADRID. IN THAT ORDER.’ — which sparked fury among Real fans and the Spanish media.

Dragons boss Giggs banned Bale and Co from playing golf at the China Cup in March 2018 — and is set to do likewise next summer.

Wales are assessing where to be based after Saturday’s Euro draw placed them in Baku for their opening two games and then Rome for the clash on June 21.

Ford added: “Italy and Azerbaijan will be warm so it’d be remiss not to base ourselves somewhere to acclimatise.

“You have to be in the host country the day before the game. You don’t have to be based in the host country.

“We will give the team everything they need to give them the best chance of success.”

Should Wales win the group they will play at Wembley in the second round against the runner-up from Group C, which includes Ukraine, Netherlands, Austria and a country via the play-offs.

If they finish second, they face the Group B runner-up — Belgium, Russia, Denmark or Finland — in Amsterdam.

 

 

 

Liverpool extend lead at top of the Premier League after tough encounter against Brighton

– By James Clancy

Liverpool 2 Brighton 1

Liverpool hung on after having goalkeeper Alisson Becker sent off to beat Brighton & Hove Albion 2-1 and extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to 11 points thanks to two first-half headers from defender Virgil van Dijk.

Liverpool, who also equaled their unbeaten top flight run of 31 games set between May 1987 and March 1988, have 40 points from 14 games, with second-placed champions Manchester City on 29 after they were held to a 2-2 draw at Newcastle United. It was a nervy record-extending 14th successive Premier League win at home for Liverpool, who missed a string of chances either side of Van Dijk’s double before they were forced to defend desperately in the closing stages.

The towering Dutch defender acknowledged Alisson’s sending off was a blow ahead of Liverpool’s Merseyside derby at home to Everton on Wednesday and also praised Brighton.

“We should have done better,” Van Dijk said afterwards. “We put him in that situation but it is what it is. We have to deal with it. It is a disappointment but we go again.

“They (Brighton) are a good side. They play football and take risks. It’s not easy. We should have gone better than we did in the second half but you have to give them credit as well.”

Van Dijk opened the scoring in the 18th minute with a looping header after Trent Alexander-Arnold floated in a free kick from the right and the two combined again for the second goal six minutes later. Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan denied Sadio Mané with a fine reflex save but was powerless when Van Dijk made his run to meet Alexander-Arnold’s corner at the near post.

Centre back Lewis Dunk missed two chances to pull one back for Brighton, sending a shot wide from close range shortly before halftime and then glancing a header inches wide of the far post in the 54th minute. Then came a frantic climax as Alisson was sent off in the 77th minute for handling the ball outside the penalty area.

While stand-in keeper Adrian was still yelling out instructions to the wall at the far post, Dunk took advantage and stroked a quick low free kick into the opposite corner. Brighton pressed for an equaliser and Adrian parried an Aaron Mooy piledriver in the 85th minute as the home side held on, much to the delight of the packed crowd at Anfield.

Republic of Ireland to play Sweden, Poland and Spain at UEFA Euro 2020 if qualification is secured in March

– By James Clancy

Ireland will face Spain, Poland and Sweden if they qualify for Euro 2020.

The Boys in Green must first negotiate a playoff after failing to qualify automatically with a semi final away to Slovakia next month.

If they win that Ireland will play either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Northern Ireland away from home for a place at next summer’s tournament.

But should they reach the tournament the Boys in Green will have a favourable group after avoiding the likes of Portugal and France in today’s draw.

Mick McCarthy’s side would open the competition with a clash against Poland in Dublin on June 15th.

And Sweden would be the next side to visit Dublin for the second group game on June 19th.

HOME COMFORTS

Ireland would then finish up the group with a trip to face Spain in Bilbao for the final fixture.

Elsewhere in the tournament reigning European champions Portugal, World Cup winners France and Germany have all been drawn together in the group of death.

England will take on Croatia and the Czech Republic as well as the team that comes through Path C, which contains Scotland.

The winner of England’s group will face the runner up of the Portugal, France and Germany group in the Round of 16 match that Dublin is hosting.

The opening game of the tournament will see Turkey take on Italy in Rome, in a group that also contains Wales and Switzerland.

Here’s the full Euro 2020 draw:

Group A: Turkey, Italy, Wales, Switzerland

Group B: Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia

Group C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, Path D winner (Georgia/Belarus/Kosovo/North Macedonia)

Group D: England, Croatia, Czech Republic, Path C winner (Scotland, Serbia, Norway, Israel)

Group E: Spain, Poland, Sweden, Path B winner (Ireland, Slovakia, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Group F: Germany, Portugal, France, Path A winner (Iceland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary)

 

 

Munster miss late chance but happy to come away with a draw over the 80 minutes against Racing

– By James Clancy

Munster 21-21 Racing

A late Andrew Conway try and touchline JJ Hanrahan conversion saved a draw for Munster against a quality Racing 92 outfit in the Champions Cup at a sold-out Thomond Park on Saturday evening.

Munster’s late comeback very nearly earned the victory but Hanrahan, moments after a stunning leveller, was unable to land the drop-goal.

The two points keep Munster and Racing tied at the top of Pool four on seven apiece with Saracens second on five points.

Hanrahan’s first penalty from long-range after eight minutes got Munster off the mark but Racing showed their intent with the first try ten minutes later.

An uncharacteristic Munster error in the lineout gave the visitors the perfect platform and Finn Russell dinked through the defence to score. Teddy Iribaren, a late inclusion in place of Maxime Machenaud, converted to make it 7-3.

A scrum penalty for Munster after 26 minutes gave Hanrahan his second three-pointer but Racing again responded with a try.

This time it was Teddy Thomas as good hands released the winger down the right flank and he chipped over the last man and ran in under the posts. Iribaren made it 14-6 with half an hour played.

Munster came roaring back and opted to go for the corner after a promising attack was stopped by Racing taking a man off the ball.

After a strong maul, Munster went wide with Chris Farrell making good yards before Tadhg Beirne was held up. We had been playing advantage with Munster opting for a quick tap and Hanrahan was just stopped from touching down with the ball going forward.

The province weren’t to be denied and Keith Earls scored his 56th try for the province in the final play of the half. The hosts shifted the ball left through slick hands and Earls finished brilliantly.

Hanrahan levelled matters six minutes into the second half with his third penalty after Racing were pinged for not rolling away after a slick backline move.

Juan Imhoff was in for Racing’s third try on 48 minutes after another Russell break. The out-half spotted Jeremy Loughman limping and targeted the prop to make a break and then popped for Imhoff to score. Iribaren converted and Racing led 21-14.

It looked as if the game was drifting away from Munster as Racing held the hosts at arm’s length but the province’s never-say-die attitude was to the fore in the final 10 minutes.

After piling huge pressure on the Racing line, Munster needed a moment of magic and Hanrahan produced with a perfectly floated pass to Conway for the winger to score his sixth try in six games.

Munster needed the touchline conversion to draw level and Hanrahan produced the perfect kick to level it up.

Johann van Graan’s side still had time to win it and were camped deep in Racing territory late on but Hanrahan’s drop-goal went left and wide.

Munster continued an unbeaten home record that stretches back to December 2017.

Jeremy Loughman (ankle) limped off in the second half and will be assessed by the medical team.

Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray (Alby Mathewson, 62) ; Jeremy Loughman (James Cronin, 50), Niall Scannell (Kevin O’Byrne, 65), John Ryan (Stephen Archer, 54); Jean Kleyn (Fineen Wycherley, 54), Tadhg Beirne (Billy Holland, 62); Peter O’Mahony (C), Jack O’Donoghue (Arno Botha, 54), CJ Stander.

Man of the Match: Mike Haley.